Isles Talk will be previewing the NHL prior to the start of the season over the next few weeks. I have been given the task of taking a look at the Pittsburgh Penguins. Here is my take on the boys from the Steel City.
2013-14 Record: 51-24-7, 109 Points, 1st in Metro Division and 2nd in Eastern Conference.
Playoffs: defeated by the Rangers in the second round in game 7
Key additions: GM Jim Rutherford, Coach Mike Johnston, RW Patrick Hornqvist, C Nick Spaling, D Christian Ehrhoff, RW Blake Comeau, RW Steve Downie, G Thomas Greiss and F Daniel Carcillo
Key Reductions: RW James Neal, D Brooks Orpik, D Matt Niskanen, C Jussi Jokinen, D Deryk Engelland, LW Tanner Glass, C Joe Vitale, RW Brian Gibbons
The Pittsburgh Penguins made more than a few interesting changes over the off season after making the playoffs and then collapsing in the second round with a 3 games to 1 lead to be knocked off by the New York Rangers in seven games. Both GM Ray Shero and head coach Dan Bylsma lost their jobs, which to some, was, perhaps, a rather extreme reaction. Nevertheless, Jim Rutherford is now the new general manager, and Mike Johnston now is the head coach going into the new NHL season. Of course, this doesn’t include the trade of James Neal to the Nashville Predators and losing two very important defensemen to free agency, Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen.
Despite some significant changes up front, especially having lost James Neal and Jussi Jokinen, the Penguins still have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin as their top offensive pop. They also still have Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis –
– and Brandon Sutter in their offense. The additions of Patrick Hornqvist, who provides a solid net front presence and who had his best offensive season last year, and the gritty, Steve Downie should also add to their offense as well. How much depth they have added beyond the top line, though, will remain to be seen as the season unfolds.
Also, Sidney Crosby is rebounding from a wrist injury and has his concussion history as a realistic factor. Additionally on that top line, Pascal Dupuis is going to be coming back from reconstructive knee surgery. How well the new guys will fit into the offense will also be something that will be interesting to see. Firepower or not, when you make so many changes in a roster, what the results end up being are certainly not always a successful given.
The losses of both Orpik and Niskanen were a big hit to the Penguin back line. Kris Letang and Paul Martin are still there, but how much adding Christian Ehrhoff, after not doing all that much for the Sabres, to the lineup is, maybe, a bit of a risk. Don’t also underestimate the loss of Deryk Engelland’s toughness to the lineup and as a physical presence on the blue line in the same way as Orpik’s departure might impact the pens.
So, the question will be just how solid a defense the Penguins will have during the season is yet another variable to consider. With Letang coming back from a season in which he missed considerable time to injuries, including a stroke, the Penguins will need him to regain his previous form. Still, there is a lot of experience and depth on the blue line, and most likely, they should be all right, unless the injury bug crops up again for them.
One of the biggest questions that seems to be a hot topic being discussed in Penguin land is the goaltending of Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury is going to be a free agent at the end of this season, unless the Penguins choose to offer him an extension. Although his playoff stats were actually not bad last season, he has had monumental collapses in the recent past, and whether or not he can lead the Pens to the promise land again is the matter at hand that will probably play center role this season. Isles fans sure will not forget how bad Fleury’s playoff performances could be, though it could also be argued in other series situations that the team in front of him certainly let him down.
Thomas Greiss will definitely make a solid backup to Fleury, but Fleury is going to have to come to play all season. Without a doubt, his play will be placed under the microscope by the fans and media in Pittsburgh, especially in the playoffs should he not be able to rise to the occasion again. He has also already been the talk of trade rumors, though I personally cannot see this occurring unless the season does not start off well of Pittsburgh.
Looking at the lineup, it is hard to think that the Pittsburgh Penguins won’t be at the top of the Metro Division and among the best in the Eastern Conference. As with any team, injuries could play a major role in how things pan out, and how quickly all of the new changes come together could also play a part in the fortunes of the Penguins. Even so, I expect them to be one of the biggest threats come April in the conference. I don’t know, however, if they have the horses to win the cup.